The Magazine

Sick Unto Death

When Hollywood purges, the world recoils.

Sep 11, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 48 • By JOE QUEENAN
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Frankly, I find this prissy attitude unfair to upchuck aficionados. When a movie starts with a scene involving vomiting, the viewer has a right to expect things to get progressively more disgusting as the film goes on. But when people are disemboweled, crucified, or have their tongues ripped out without any subsequent concomitant vomiting by victims, participants, or even innocent bystanders, it suggests a certain moral laxity on the part of the filmmaker, as though we should all just get used to this mayhem and simply gorge ourselves on Milk Duds and popcorn.

Cognizant of the public's burgeoning affection for upchuck, directors increasingly get the spewing and heaving out of the way as soon as possible. The vomiting in The Constant Gardener occurs almost right off the bat. The extraneous puking in Doom takes place about 25 minutes into the film. And in the very strange movie Max, which deals with a one-armed, Berlin-based Jewish art dealer who unadvisedly befriends a struggling young painter named Adolf Hitler, the painter George Grosz vomits in the very first scene in the film. Since Hitler doesn't even have the Nazi party up and running by this point, this seems like a clear-cut case of premature, perfunctory puking. Which brings me to my criticism: Since there will be plenty of nauseating incidents later in the film, why not save the best puking scene for last?

Purists may object that this entire subject is disgusting. I agree. But then again, so is Hollywood. Ultimately, I am not calling for less puking on the big screen. What I would like to see is a more concerted effort on the part of filmmakers to integrate puking into a coherent dramatic model, and to make less use of vomiting as a cheap stunt. Sad to say, at this point in the history of motion pictures, the regurgitative arts serve an almost entirely ornamental function in mainstream cinema. Worse, from the perspective of hard-core barf buffs, once that pivotal puking scene is over (and there will obviously be no more spewing for the remainder of the film), what's the point of hanging around?

It calls to mind Mercutio's untimely death in Romeo and Juliet: Thanks, Immortal Bard, now you've gone and spoiled everything. Henry Miller once said, "If you're going to start with the cannons, you've got to finish with TNT." I honestly believe that if you're going to start with queasiness, you've got to finish with nausea. Otherwise, you're shortchanging Mr. John Q. Public.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.